The art of thatching has hardly changed since the Bronze Age, with a small band of craftspeople keeping the skill alive.
Not so long ago, a lost village was found at Flag Fen, in Cambridgeshire, dating back some 3,500 years to the Bronze Age. It was composed of wooden buildings that were thatched with water reed. It shows just how long the roofing material has been around – but it is by no means restricted to the chocolate box cottages of England. The world over, using plant material as a roof was the cheapest and best way to make your building weatherproof. Warm in the winter yet cool in the summer, the natural properties of the plant repelled water and was light enough for even the most rickety of structures – making it perfect for both tropical and temperate climates.
Today, the most common materials used in the UK are reed and wheat straw, but in the past this would have been whatever was close to hand – as well as reed and straw, broom, sedge, sallow, flax, grass and heather would have been used. Like many of our crafts, the Industrial Revolution brought about a huge reduction in thatching – the railway and canal networks allowing cheap slate from Wales to be distributed across the country, and later, agricultural machinery made wheat straw useless for the purpose.
The method for thatching consists of layers of thatch, known as coursing, which are held in place by fixings. Bundles of straw or reed are attached to the roof timbers, creating a single-layered roof. This is then often used as a base on which to fix the new bundles, which are held in place by pointed wooden pegs. Each course must, as with tiled roofs, protect the fixings of the course below it. A final ridgeline will hide the top fittings, and is often cut with a decorative pattern – the thatcher’s signature. The ridge is the part that also takes the most maintenance, and needs to be replaced the most frequently to ensure the longevity of the rest of the roof.The thatch must be steep to ensure that it can shed water, and each layer of thatch is usually around 30 centimetres thick. The life of a roof depends on the material, but the situation has a huge bearing on it, too – the drier the environment, the longer the roof will last. Thatched roofs in the east of the country could last up to 60 years, while the straw roofs in the wetter west might survive half that period.
In the UK, there are approximately 800 thatchers, many of whom are one-man bands. The National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT) represents over a third of all thatchers in the UK and is a member of the International Thatchers Society (ITS). NSMT run an exchange programme through the ITS, for its members to learn and understand thatching and materials used worldwide. The training programmes run by NSMT, which can lead to an NVQ Qualification Level 3 in Heritage Crafts are a vital part of keeping the craft alive, ensuring this heritage isn’t lost – and that we keep our chocolate-box cottages looking beautiful.
To find out more, visit nsmtltd.co.uk